Seph Rodney’s Great Mistakes


It’s come to this—reviewing a reviewer’s review of their own reviews.
Also Reflecting on the Mistakes I’ve Made as an Art Critic is two months old—maybe more—where does the time go?

What’s so good about this metacognitive essay is that Rodney describes his criteria even as they change. By doing this, he becomes less of an authority and creates more of a dialogue. In fact, each of his “mistakes” engendered an extremely interesting discussion.

“Metacognitive” is a word I learned a couple of days ago from a Pocket feed article about Thomas Edison. It turns out that his method was not “inspiration plus perspiration”—it was the “strategic mindset” which “describes the tendency to question and refine your current approach in the face of setbacks and challenges.” In my view, a great artist—and a great critic—will inevitably make a series of mistakes. Visual art is an experiment in picturing and seeing the world.

The first “mistake,” ignoring Julie Mehretu in the Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art show in Baltimore, and even “call[ing] out the exhibition for being too male-centric in the final gallery —while Mehretu was the only woman artist included in the first one,” oops, actually turned out really well. Somebody pointed it out and Rodney became aware of an artist who matters to him.  Becoming aware of a blind spot in art viewing and life itself is a good thing.

Kara Walker, “Christ’s Entry into Journalism” (2017)

The second “mistake”—even better. Rodney wrote a series of angry questions about Kara Walker’s show, The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!

Question 5 is “What if we know this already?”

And doesn’t the work rub all of our noses in the mud? Do we all deserve that all the time? What if one day we walk into a gallery and think, “No, not today!” Like Rodney did.
But the great thing is that Jerry Saltz wrote a sane response and the combination of these two is a wonderful moment in contemporary art criticism. If this were to happen more often—a genuine dialogue about an artist’s work—it would take the edge off that implied but false authority.

Two thoughts: If I were Walker, I would find Rodney’s response more exciting. Someone actually felt something looking at my work! And I would also like Saltz’s defense. Both essays are worth reading in their entirety (see below.) Here is a part of their exchange:

“4. What do we do with the white patriarchal phallus when it is shown to be an agent of degradation for anyone who is the other?” (Seph Rodney)

“We feel revulsion for “the white patriarchal phallus when it is shown to be an agent of degradation for anyone who is the other.” (Jerry Saltz)

My own response to the work started out more like Rodney’s with the additional question, “Why do the drawings have to be so big? Where are they meant to hang?” But that’s my question in almost every venue for contemporary art.

However, I drew some of them for The Pencil Review and the drawings seen in detail became a stream of consciousness. Joyce! Celine! Intimate, cathartic and daring too, because the drawing hand cannot lie—it is a very direct emotional language.

About the show Jason Lazarus: A CENTURY OF DISSENT!, Rodney feels that his first review was too harsh because he did not realize that the show’s purpose was to engage the audience and provide materials to make their own protest signs. Also, when Lazarus invited him to his next show and explained the larger purpose of A CENTURY… he seems to have convinced Rodney of its value.
Rodney’s first review seems right on to me as I question whether an art gallery is the place for protest signs, whether the space robs the signs of their power, whether anybody will see the show that disagrees with it—and even whether an artist needs to “help,” i.e., provide materials, enable discussions.
Rodney goes so far as to say he isn’t even sure that protests are effective, which is delightfully unPC.
I think they might be sometimes. I think they did force attention to AIDS. Personally, I can never join a chanting angry group of people even when I totally agree with what they are saying. Also I absolutely agree with Rodney that it is important to find other ways to effect change.

For example I believe in reparations. If you do, why wait for a law? Do something now.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #470” (2008)
Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #474” (2008)

The next mistake Rodney identifies was in not calling out Cindy Sherman more harshly for her blackface self-portraits circa 1976, though he did deplore the images and call them atrocious. In his revised view he thinks he should not have made allowances for the artist’s youth.

Again this led to a very interesting defense mounted by Eric Wayne*—basically that Sherman makes brutal caricatures of other groups of people too. That is true, her society women for example are stupid and shallow and repetitive and of course many society women are—but not all. You might have to be an older woman—and not even a rich one—to wince.

Wayne finds her brilliant. I think her work is awful, has no nuance, no humor—oh, perhaps that’s why she fits so perfectly into the zeitgeist.
Btw, Jerry Saltz said that it was her portraits of herself recreating Old Master paintings that made him appreciate her. I saw that show in a Toronto museum, alongside Old Master paintings—the Old Masters made the Shermans look thin, and the Shermans reduced the paintings to caricatures.

I have dressed in blackface. I was the black Magi at a Christmas dinner to the sounds of Mario Lanza singing We Three Kings of Orient Are. The baby was white and female—and the whole pageant was my idea, too.

Rodney also speaks out against cancel culture—he has been called names and been the recipient of a great deal of anger. His defense of civil discussion is very moving.
Some of these reactions seem to have to do with the perceived authority of The Critic. Actually there are fewer critics of visual art than there used to be, they aren’t paid very well, most of them don’t drive the market; sadly, many of them are driven by it.

Kerry James Marshall, “Our Town” (1995)

Angry objections to my reviews have also been more about my right to criticize the work than to the substance. In one case though, I felt misunderstood—poor me. Kerry Marshall’s Our Town, which is a masterpiece, is very complicated visually and has many happy elements—blue skies, blue birds with ribbons, children playing—and no matter how often I have seen it, it strikes me with a fresh horror that the dog is biting the girl’s foot. I wrote “No matter how hard I try I cannot make it all right.”

Sarah B wrote to Talking Pictures:
“The childish resentment implicit in the (condescending) phrase ‘Hey, Mr. Marshall, I think you wanted me to feel the horror and the loss that racism has wrought and I do’ is just the beginning. The reviewer goes on to complain, ‘no matter how I try, I cannot make it all right,’ as if offended by the lack of an easy escape from being implicated in the history of American racism.”

If I were to explain that I think racism is a form of insanity, that I desperately want the dog not to bite the girl’s foot either in this very visceral immediate way or symbolically then…
But, really no, Sarah B would not care about any of that even if she believed it—and that is useful information to know.

Lastly I want to say something about Rodney’s response to a comment accusing him of marginalizing Kara Walker:
“Do I understand you correctly? You think that questioning Kara Walker rigorously is oppressing her? You do realize that she is world famous and that her work is included in more blue-chip collections than I can easily list here? How would it even be possible for me to push Walker to the margins?”

The implication here is that Rodney as a Black man should not criticize a Black woman artist. But there is also the very popular idea—even among critics—that it is kinder to ignore what they don’t like. And artists also are often outraged if their work gets a negative review. This has led to an art world that “likes” everything, doesn’t care passionately about anything and that very few people take a real interest in.


Reflecting on the Mistakes I’ve Made as an Art Critic


An Artist Invites Visitors to Remake Historical Protest Signs


15 Questions About Kara Walker’s Latest Exhibition

Eric Wayne “In Defense of Cindy Sherman”–in the comments section, Seph Rodney replies (click on this line)